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Editorial: Safeguarding press freedom

Editorial: Safeguarding press freedom
The rabble-rousing press conference by Rabi Lamichhane earlier this week has created a schism in Nepali society regarding its perception of the media. On one side are those who are lapping up Lamichhane’s claim that mainstream media is the enemy of the state, that publishers, editors and journalists are guided by corporate greed and are deep in corruption. And then there are others who see his boisterous condemnation of the press as a mere temper tantrum. It was clear that the leader of Rastriya Swatantra Party was angry at the media for covering the story about the validity of the citizenship he furnished to contest the election of Nov 20 last year. The case landed in the Supreme Court and Lamichhane went on to lose his status as Home Minister and Member of Parliament. It was also clear that his ad hominem diatribe filled with personal gripes and insults was aimed at pandering to his supporters. In doing so, he has sown a seed of distrust against the press. This could have a far-reaching impact on democracy, giving rise to politics of populism, where serious journalism is supplanted by misinformation and disinformation, which is taking hold in different parts of the world.

In the age of social media, it is far too easy to distort the truth and bend the narrative. The role of traditional media is to bring out the truth, to report and to scrutinize those in power. Nepali mainstream media has been doing just that, and ever so proudly. If anyone, Lamichhane should know this better as a former member of the media fraternity. His TV show was based on the very concept of scrutinizing the powers that be. He should also know that the very media houses, publishers and journalists that he tried to discredit have always played a role of a bulwark to defend democracy and the rule of law.

By delegitimizing the press in a Trumpian fashion, Lamichhane has put democracy in peril. He has also betrayed his own supporters, who, disenchanted by old political parties, voted him to power. People who voted for Lamichhane certainly did not want him to act in such a vindictive and bitter manner. That he had presented invalid citizenship to contest the election is true, and the Supreme Court passed down its judgment accordingly. Meanwhile, the media simply did its job and reported the story. Losing the home ministry and parliament seat should have been least of his concern, what with his widespread support base. But his anger and ego got in the way. Rather than fessing up to his transgression, he went on to play the victim card and portrayed the press as his cruel persecutor. Lamichhane’s attempt at incitement and intimidation is thoroughly condemnable. When a leader tries to undermine the credibility of the press, it creates space for propagandists and authoritarians.